A Conversation: Adam Johnson and Krys Lee

January 25, 2018   •   By Krys Lee, Adam Johnson

AUTHORS Adam Johnson and Krys Lee got together recently to discuss writing about North Korea. Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Orphan Master’s Son is set in North Korea, as is Lee’s How I Became a North Korean.


ADAM JOHNSON: First off, I loved your story collection Drifting House, and I was excited to see you follow it up with a novel, particularly one set partly in North Korea. Do you think fiction might have an advantage over nonfiction when it comes to writing about North Korea?

KRYS LEE: Much has been written about North Korea, yet so much is still unknown. Maybe because I grew up in a family where our origins, our religion, and even the very identities of our parents were a mystery to me and my sister, I’ve always been attracted to what seems beyond our knowledge. I could have written about my experiences with North Koreans in South Korea and the border region as a memoir, but fiction compelled me more since it explores the mystery of life. What makes each one of us human and individuals is infinitely complex, and the privilege of writing How I Became a North Korean was to imagine the secret selves of all these different characters, and to explore what it means to be a survivor, a perpetrator, and a North Korean both within the nation’s borders and without.

Adam Johnson

AJ: I like what you said about mysteries, and I’m sure readers are now curious about your personal mysteries — about, as you say, your own family’s origins and religion and identity. I believe that fiction writers’ imaginations are activated by things that are half-seen, which often means that a narrative must be found to discover the organizing truths behind a set of facts. If the “facts” of your novel came from your experiences with North Korean defectors, were there larger truths the writing of a novel revealed to you?

KL: Yes. For one, I had embarked on the novel with strong feelings about missionaries and journalists based on my experience working on the border between China and North Korea, but writing the novel was also about discovering how they saw the world, the person behind the nationality, and their troubled humanity. But what most astonished me was my character Jangmi: she showed me how wily and strong one had to be in order to survive as a North Korean woman. I hadn’t intended for her to be an archetype, but once the novel was completed, I recognized her resourcefulness, and her willingness to use her capacities as a woman to get ahead, in so many North Korean women I’ve known. What also stunned me was how much of her I saw in my younger, past self. I too did things I’m not proud of in order to escape my circumstances.

AJ: Barbara Demick, in her amazing nonfiction book Nothing to Envy, also manages to capture the strength and resourcefulness of the female defectors she followed for her profiles. Most of your readers have never knowingly met someone from North Korea. Can you share what it’s like to engage someone who was born and raised in the North and managed to escape? Does a particular encounter stand out for you, or do you recall the first person you met from the DPRK?

KL: Many moments stand out, including a North Korean friend who invited me to dinner and prepared a homemade meal that resembled a feast. Or watching a woman I knew calling a lover while her new husband was sleeping, in order to get support from both for her young child. Or when I was living in Rome on the Rome Prize, having a meal in Trastevere with Shin Dong-hyuk of Blaine Harden’s book Escape From Camp 14 who has suffered so much both in the camps as well as afterward, in South Korea. He had just gotten married, so I was able to meet his wife, a wonderful woman who has helped him, day by day, learn how to live a normal life. Anyone who has observed Shin over a long period of time knows how the camp experience has permanently scarred his body and shaped his way of thinking. To see him go from an incredibly lonely, sweet, complex young man struggling to understand the world and himself, to a married man recovering his desire to live, made me unspeakably happy.

AJ: The personal encounters you describe make me think of your title, How I Became a North Korean. The title is uttered in the first person, like a confession — did you become a little North Korean in the writing of the book?

KL: It’s interesting that you viewed it as a confession. The title came to me intuitively as a declaration or an assertion, if only because I wanted to call attention to how individuals, once they leave their country, are identified as North Koreans, as a representative of a group rather than as singular individuals. I can’t say I became symbolically North Korean through the writing of the novel, but I definitely came to more deeply understand what surviving and living a fugitive life might require of them. To imagine the daily reality of my characters’ lives helped me better understand the patterns of paranoia, suspicion, and the shifting sense of “the truth” I’d seen in many North Koreans. This certainly helped me be more forgiving of certain behavior that can be bewildering and even hurtful, like the time I was accused of stealing resettlement money from a defector I’d helped; only after hours of defending myself did he tell me that I had passed his test, and that he now trusted that I was not intent of being repaid for helping him.

AJ: I like how the defector you describe created a fiction (knowingly falsely accusing you of stealing) to get at a deeper truth (the sincerity of your motivations). Fictionalizing our lives is something we all do to a degree. But defectors come from a land where the entire national narrative is a fiction. Traumatic experiences can also warp personal narratives. Plus, the stories of defectors are very difficult to verify. And then there's the fact that the outside world seems to favor certain kinds of defector stories, or at least certain aspects of them. Given all this, do you think the testimonials of defectors are more fictional, or perhaps, on the flip side, more truthful?

KL: A member of the British Parliament once wrote me, saying that though he had read dozens of nonfiction accounts and defector testimonies about or by North Koreans, it was How I Became a North Korean that made him care about the plight and more deeply understand the psychology of North Koreans fleeing their country. I was surprised and honored since he was working on a human rights committee focused at the time on North Korea. My faith in fiction lies in that it can access the deeper, internal truth of people and the world. I understand of course that the work of journalists is necessary, but I don’t envy their job when it comes to a country like North Korea, since there is so little within the country that one can verify. Of course, some defector testimonies are more trustworthy than others; a defector friend once told me that few North Koreans wholly believe in one another’s stories, and that they know when the truth has been stretched when they hear it. But to dismiss them all because of factual idiosyncrasies in one or any number of published accounts would be to discount the numerous testimonies of many who told their stories for no benefit and at great personal cost.

The fact that, as you’ve noted, trauma shapes and distorts truth and memories, is also in play when it comes to defector testimonies. The “truth” is always complicated. For me, even testimonies that have been called to question are “true,” so long as the defining experiences and the person are real.

AJ: When talking about the core experience of escaping North Korea, one thing your novel illuminates, which a lot of portraits of defection don’t, is the fact that North Koreans face an entirely new set of struggles and challenges when they make it to China. Most people are under the impression that when a North Korean crosses the border, freedom and happiness ensue, but your experience and research suggest otherwise, right?

KL: Definitely. Some of the greatest struggles and dangers begin once they leave, since China doesn’t recognize North Koreans as refugees and deports them, knowing full well the punishment they face when they return. Despite its awareness of these practices, the international community hasn’t stood up to China because of its economic clout. As a result, North Koreans are entirely unprotected while in China, and vulnerable to whoever chooses to take advantage of them, until they cross the border once again — if they can make it that far — and reach a third, safe country that will offer them sanctuary. This kind of situation, where you have desperate people with no protection under the law, attracts all sorts of criminal activity, including sex trafficking and other modern forms of slavery.

AJ: How important is finding the right language for you? Do the sentences come first, or is there first a feeling you have to find words for?

KL: What often attracts me to a writer’s body of work is the sentence. One word builds on another, creating a voice and a particular rhythm. Nothing or everything can be happening in terms of plot, but the drama of the sentence is what keeps me reading.

Like most writers, I pay attention to plot and character, but ultimately, to borrow an image from the poet Ted Hughes, it is making one paw print in the snow at a time that leads me to see plot and character more clearly. Language invents the world. Of course, the best fiction is a merging of intelligence, imagination, and arresting language.

AJ: So, what's next? Is your next project taking on more personal or political themes?

KL: My personal projects seem to become political quickly, and conversely the political always becomes personal. I’m working on a novel that merges fantastical elements with realist elements, which began with a dream I had three years ago. I’m also writing short stories that seem to circle around art and magic, and those reliable fraternal twins, loneliness and love. Each new idea makes my daily life exciting and mysterious — apart from reading, the best thing about being a writer is writing.


Adam Johnson is an American novelist and short story writer. His 2012 novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, won the Pulitzer Prize. He is also a professor of English at Stanford University with a focus on creative writing.

Krys Lee is the author of the short story collection Drifting House and How I Became a North Korean. She is a recipient of the Rome Prize and the Story Prize Spotlight Award, the Honor Title in Adult Fiction Literature from the Asian/Pacific American Libraries Association, and a finalist for the BBC International Story Prize.